When an employee at the Boston Public Library couldn’t find a Rembrandt etching in its Special Collections archive on April 8, it probably didn’t seem like too big a deal. The institution holds more than 200,000 prints, and it could have easily been misfiled.
But since then, the library has been turned inside out after an internal search not only failed to produce Rembrandt’s “Self-Portrait with Plumed Cap and Lowered Sabre” (worth an estimated $20,000 to $30,000) but also revealed the absence of an important engraving — Albrecht Dürer’s “Adam and Eve” (valued at $600,000). Both have been missing for up to a year. On April 29, two weeks after library president Amy E. Ryan informed authorities of the missing print, the Boston Police Anti-Corruption Unit, with the help of the FBI and US Attorney’s office, launched an official investigation.
Authorities are considering whether the prints were stolen. Only six staff members had access to the restricted area where they were archived, and though no charges have yet been filed, the special collections keeper has been placed on paid administrative leave. According to the Boston Globe, Police Commissioner William B. Evans told reporters that detectives are looking into whether it could have been an inside job. “We’re looking at a few people inside,” he said.
Ryan told the newspaper that the library’s security standards are similar to those at other national institutions. It had even recently improved security by installing new cameras and expanding key card access points as part of a $78 million renovation. Last October, it also hired a Manager of Systemwide Security, who would be tasked with helping the institution update and develop its security policies.
All that wasn’t enough, though, according to a library audit commissioned by Mayor Walsh in December, released to the Finance Commission May 26, and obtained by the Boston Globe. “Security is insufficient to protect against internal theft,” the independent consulting firm Chrysalis Management noted in their report, going on to recommend the library install a security monitoring system with live camera feeds. Writing in the Boston Globe, Malcolm Gay observed that the fiasco “points to a seemingly intractable problem as archivists and librarians try to secure their collections, while also leaving them open to public study.”
But the audit also exposed other problems at the library that suggest the problem might be bigger than just security. It reported that the special collections department doesn’t have a list of its inventory (it didn’t even have images of the missing prints), and that the library has prioritized acquiring new prints over properly caring for the ones it already has.
“Staff levels are not sufficient to properly care for aging items and storage is not suited to maintaining required environmental conditions,” the review said. “Current estimates for holdings are [in most categories] guesses made many years ago that have been adjusted with newer guesses along the way.”
While it may seem egregious that a library as fine as Boston’s doesn’t even know which art it owns, it’s not the only institution with that problem, as many have suffered in the jump from paper to digital record keeping. The Works Progress Administration, for instance, can’t locate an estimated 100,000 artworks it commissioned decades ago; in April, 122 missing WPA paintings were found in several California libraries that didn’t know they had them.